Nineteen years after the brutal, anti-gay murder of her 21-year-old son Matthew in Laramie, Wyoming, Judy Shepard is committed and passionate about the cause of combatting bullying and bias of the type that ripped her family apart.
“I look at this as my grieving process,” she said of the frequent appearances that she and her husband, Dennis, make in talking to high school and college audiences, corporate gatherings, and law enforcement forums.
Then, mentioning how much times have changed, she added, “Matt’s world is not their world, but we try to describe what his world was like. I feel we have to share that part of Matt’s life so they understand what he was going through. But it’s hard to relive it every day.”
Shepard spoke to Gay City News as part of a trip to New York — including a November 16 reception at the Stonewall Inn — to help kick off the 20th year of the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s existence.
The upcoming 12 months will include a collaboration next June with the onePULSE Foundation in Orlando to honor those killed in last year’s LGBTQ nightclub massacre with a stage run of “The Laramie Project,” Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project’s documentary theater piece about the aftermath of Matthew’s 1998 hate murder. Next October, the 20th anniversary of that killing and of the Foundation’s efforts will be marked with a gala gathering in Denver.
Passionate as she is, Judy Shepard has a westerner’s reserve in her manner, criticizing the polarizing turn the nation has taken since Donald Trump came on the scene — without naming the president directly.
“We’ve taken a step back in the last two years,” she said of the progress on building a culture of tolerance and acceptance in the nation. “Ever since the campaign began and the lead candidate unleashed the attitude of not caring to say the right thing, and that has empowered others to do the same. Maybe we were just kidding ourselves and people always felt these things, but we are really worried.”
In a separate meeting with this newspaper’s photographer, Dennis Shepard was considerably more voluble in calling Trump out.
Judy emphasized the importance of leadership at the top, noting that from the administration of George W. Bush to Barack Obama’s, there was a huge difference “in the way things were talked about… There has definitely been a downturn” since January.
Asked to name what has been lost, she said, “I wouldn’t even use the word politically correct. I would say it’s about kindness.”
But Shepard is also optimistic.
“Businesses have become so pro-LGBT,” she said, “and we are in much better shape to respond. We are organized.”
The high school audiences she meets, Shepard added, “don’t care who loves who, who’s dating who. They do get it.
For more information about the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit matthewshepard.org. LGBTQ youth can join in the discussion on how to combat hate, harassment, and bullying at medium.com